IF PARTY hopping has been the flavour of this election cycle in Maharashtra, the sugar belt of Ahmednagar, also the largest district in the state, is at the centre of it.
It was here where it all started, when just ahead of the Lok Sabha polls, earlier this year, Sujay, the son of then Leader of Opposition (LOP) in the Legislative Assembly, Radhakrishna Vikhe-Patil, rocked the Opposition’s boat by walking over to the BJP, winning the Ahmednagar South seat as the saffron alliance’s candidate.
In June, Vikhe-Patil followed his son’s footsteps. The BJP, in turn, rewarded him with a Cabinet rank in the Devendra Fadnavis government, notwithstanding allegations of corruption he had levelled against it a few months ago.
But while their defections rattled the Opposition camp, it was in line with the ‘Aaya Ram Gaya Ram’ culture that Ahmednagar is famous for.
A land of powerful and interconnected political families and cooperative barons, Ahmednagar has often witnessed strange political alliances and defections. “Political parties and ideologies don’t matter much here. It is the regional cooperative politics that counts,” said senior political analyst Tarachand Mhaske.
Consider this. Bhausaheb Kamble, who was the Congress’s Lok Sabha candidate from the Shirdi constituency against the Shiv Sena just five months ago, is now the latter’s candidate from the Shrirampur Assembly seat in the region. Vikhe-Patil’s brother-in-law Rajesh Parjane, another local heavyweight, is in the fray against BJP’s sitting MLA Snehalata Kolhe in Kopargaon, which borders the former LOP’s constituency of Shirdi.
The Kolhes, too, are a powerful political family which had been associated with the Congress and the NCP in the past. Rivals of the Vikhe-Patils in local politics, they had joined the BJP ahead of the state polls in 2014. Snehalata’s principle rival, Ashutosh Kale (NCP), is also a third generation politician from Congress veteran Shankarrao Kale’s family, which has contested the previous three Assembly polls against the Kolhes on a Sena ticket.
On Friday, Vikhe-Patil shared the dais with Snehalata for an election rally where the CM was present, but there was no warmth between the two sides. While Vikhe-Patil extended support to Snehalata, both he and the CM avoided speaking about Parjane’s rebellion.
Meanwhile, the presence of another BJP rebel, Vijay Wahadne, has made the contest intriguing. Even the Kales are local sugar barons, and have been contesting Assembly polls against the Kolhes consistently since the 1980s, with both sides switching parties on more than one occasion.
During Friday’s rally, Vikhe-Patil recounted how he had “criticised the Fadnavis government as the Opposition leader” before justifying that he had joined the government “for larger public interest”. But state Congress president Vijay (Balasaheb) Thorat, Vikhe-Patil’s staunchest local opponent, has accused him of being “power hungry.”
Vikhe-Patil’s father, veteran Congressman Balasaheb Vikhe-Patil, too, had defected from the Congress on three occasions, before returning back to the party fold.
In neighbouring Akole, NCP defector Vaibhav Pichad, who had won in the 2014 elections, is now the BJP’s nominee. He faces a tough contest against NCP’s Dr Kiran Lahamte. In Nevasa, the NCP hasn’t fielded a candidate in support of Independent candidate and former partyman Prashant Gadakh, whose family enjoys close ties with the BJP. He is pitted against sitting BJP MLA Balasaheb Murkute.
Former NCP minister Babanrao Pachpute, now with the BJP, is the frontrunner in Shrigonda, while in Shevgaon, sitting BJP MLA Monica Rajale, formerly with NCP, is in a two-cornered race with former minister Babanrao Dhakne’s son Pratap, who had contested on a BJP ticket in 2009.
In Shrirampur, Kamble’s induction has sparked a rebellion in the local Sena ranks, giving Congress an outside chance to regain the seat. In Parner, Sena legislator Vijay Auti, also the deputy speaker in the Legislative Council, faces a challenge from NCP’s Nilesh Lanke, who was previously with the Sena.
In Rahuri, BJP MLA Shivajirao Kardile, also formerly with NCP, is up against NCP state president Jayant Patil’s nephew Prajakt. Prajakt’s mother had fought the 2014 election on a Sena ticket.
Both Thorat and Vikhe-Patil, meanwhile, are hot favourites to win from Sangamner and Shirdi, respectively. But in Karjat-Jamkhed, Guardian Minister Ram Shinde is facing a tough fight from Sharad Pawar’s grandson Rohit Pawar. In Ahmednagar (City), NCP MLA Sangram Jagtap is battling “non-cooperation” from the local Congress unit against Sena’s Anil Rathod.
In 2014, the BJP had won five out of the 12 seats in this former Congress bastion, with the Congress and NCP winning three each, and Sena one. While the saffron alliance had targeted winning all 12 seats this time, sources said that this seems like an uphill task. Last year, the local BJP and NCP units had defied the party line to join hands for mayoral elections.